By Susan Merritt
Career-Long Musician and Music Educator
The typical size of a modern "symphony orchestra" is the result of the changing historical/stylistic periods in orchestral music. The number of musicians required to play the music written in each of the historical styles grew from small (around 25 players in the 1600-1750 Baroque Period) to very large (95-105+ in the 1815-1915 late Romantic Period and afterward). This was not because those crazy audiences just decided they liked bigger orchestras or the musicians wanted more buddies. It was because the composers of each period wrote music for more and more instruments.
To be designated a "symphony orchestra", an ensemble must have the instrumental forces needed to play music from each and every stylistic period. (i.e. a "chamber orchestra" plays only music from the earlier periods, thus needing a smaller complement of players; a "string orchestra" plays music written only for stringed instruments). A modern symphony orchestra, needs over ninety musicians on its roster, and, in some cases, over a hundred, to perform music of every stylistic period.
Quite aside from the requirements of the art form itself, professional orchestral musicians, like professional athletes, are engaged day in and day out in strenuous and sometimes injurious repetitive physical activity. If you think that's bunk, try sawing away on a violin or bending over a string bass for 6-8 hours a day and then being at the top of your form around 10:00 o'clock three to four nights a week. Repeat for 30 years. Shoulders, elbows, backs, necks, wrists, and hands take an incredible beating. You will be on a first-name basis with your physical therapist, neurologist, orthopedist - not to mention your otologist when your hearing goes because you sat in front of the trumpet section for your entire career.
At any one time during a season, there inevitably will be a number of team (orchestra) members on the "injured list" - yes, orchestras have an injured list. Sometimes careers (and livelihoods) end because of the injuries. Healthcare is no small item among your benefits.
In order to continue performing at peak capacity and to prevent the most common injuries, rest periods are essential. All musicians (athletes) need to be "on the bench" periodically. The rosters (complements) of teams must account for that reality, so that there are more pitchers, goalies, linebackers or musicians available than are needed for any one game (performance). Size of the roster is critical for two other reasons. (1) Both types of organizations train/rehearse and play as a team, with all the implied interdependencies cultivated by long-term work AS A TEAM, and (2) there (we hope) will always be newer players learning OVER TIME to play well with the team. Bringing in short-term, albeit talented, players from the outside who have not cultivated these interdependencies undermines the carefully fostered characteristics of the team (orchestra). The same principles apply in business. The Business Dictionary defines "team" as
"A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project. Team members (1) operate with a high degree of interdependence, (2) share authority and responsibility for self-management, (3) are accountable for the collective performance, and (4) work toward a common goal and shared rewards(s). A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, thus generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members."
The chart below shows the MINIMUM number and types of instruments needed to perform music of each historical period, based on the composers' indicated orchestration of their works. This is for a SINGLE PERFORMANCE of a piece of music of the period. It, of course, does not account for the standard management of the orchestral "team", taking injury, illness and required rest time into account. The contrast with the present number of active musicians in the Atlanta "Symphony" Orchestra is instructive. It reveals how many non-team players must supplement the ASO when they play music written after 1815. Sometimes up to one-fourth of the orchestra. It also indicates that every single ASO musician must be physically well and present onstage for music written in the Classical Period (1730- c.1820).
Which music are we talking about? The music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, all the Strausses, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Elgar, Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Holst, Ives, Ravel, de Falla, Respighi, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Copland, Shostakovich, Barber, Britten, Bernstein, Adams... . I'll stop there. These are some of the recognizable superstars of each period (and, ironically, the composers Atlanta audiences have historically been most likely to buy a ticket to hear). The composers of that group number in the hundreds, if not thousands. We should also mention the "Atlanta School of Composers" - composers whose music was commissioned, premiered and recorded by and are now eternally associated with the (once?) great Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Higdon, Theofanidis, Golijov, Gandolfi and Adam Schoenberg (and according to the ASO website, "...with other prospective composers on the horizon". Really?).
The Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) has assumed a role for which it was not originally intended, namely the cultivation, management and promotion of a symphony orchestra (or art museum or theatre). That role was rightfully delegated to the individual managers and boards of directors of each division of the Center – those with the expertise to do that. The Woodruff Arts Center handled facilities, payroll, corporate fundraising, security, etc., but not the artistic product. In other words, WAC played a support role to the actual artistic product. Divisions paid WAC their share of the “rent” and other services. The WAC in turn shared the corporate funds raised with the divisions according to their respective budget size.
Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, famously said of bad companies: “… the ‘product people’ get run out of the decision-making forums. The companies forget how to make great products. The product sensibility and product genius that brought them to this monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product vs. a bad product.” (Carey, Ryan. The Eight Greatest Quotes from Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. March 6, 2013. http://www.pastemagazine. com/blogs/lists/2013/03/the-eight-most-important-passages-from-steve-jobs-the-lost-interview.html)
Given the current mindset, I daresay that we can look forward to the Governing Board of the Center embarking on a course that determines the types of artists and playwrights the High and the Alliance will be capable of displaying/performing – with no less disastrous results than determining which repertoire the ASO is capable of performing. The quality of the product determines the fate of the organization. The ASO, by its very nature, is the only WAC division that must rely on a permanent roster of musicians to exist. I fear that the present course ensures that the Center will eventually be “parenting” (badly) a second-rate and merely regional group of artistic organizations. Does the Arts Center aspire to mediocrity?
Creative accounting, meddling in the artistic product, and causing possible irreversible harm to the very institutions that give the Woodruff Arts Center its reason for being spell doom for the WAC. It’s time to wake up. A balanced budget for a second-rate arts center is no victory.
Do your job, WAC. Raise the money to support excellence.
Here's that not so pretty chart (hard to do in a Facebook post) by period and required instruments listed in order:
Classical Period/Early Romantic Period/Late Romantic Period/Modern Period
1st Violins 10/14/16/16
2nd Violins 10/12/14/14
Double basses 4/6/8/8
French horns 2-4/4/4-10/4-8
Other percussionists 0/1/4/4-5
1st Violins 14
2nd Violins 11
Double basses 5
French horns 4
Other percussionists 3
I know it's hard to compare when there is no grid to line it all up. Work at it. Read it and weep.You'll learn a lot. Then think: Does Atlanta have a symphony orchestra?